Is the western model of urbanisation and development suited to tropical countries like India?

The mention of development brings to our minds, sprawling cityscapes, flyovers, speeding cars, smooth flowing traffic, top-of-the-class urban amenities, posh lifestyles and so on. How often have we seen this translated into reality in India? Only in a few pockets in the metropolitan areas; For example M.G Road in Bangalore. Living in cities is a trial for most of the inhabitants; we all complain about pollution, traffic, overcrowding and power cuts. Can our cities, which are the engines of the economy, the representatives of the levels of development of a country, ever come close to achieving the ideal? Are there natural hurdles, which are insurmountable and out of our control?

The Global Liveability Index is an evaluation and ranking of the living standards in 140 cities, released by the Economist Intelligence unit, a part of The Economist group. In the 2019 index, among the bottom five least liveable cities, three are from tropical or subtropical countries : Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea at 135th, Pakistan’s Karachi at 136th and Bangladesh’s Dhaka at 138th. Among Indian cities, New Delhi was ranked at 118th and Mumbai at 119th. Perhaps if other cities like Chandigarh or Indore were assessed, India would have fared better. The top spots were occupied by Vienna (Austria), Melbourne (Australia), Sydney (again Australia) and Osaka (Japan). The most obvious explanation is that the top ranking cities exist in nations with high levels of development, while the bottom ones are still in different stages of development. Are there other reasons?

Population density

Tropical countries like India have high population densities. Abundant natural resources, like fertile soils, long hours of daylight and plentiful water support vast populations. Consequently, land use patterns are already established and large tracts of land are used for agriculture. New cities or the expansion of older cities must happen by encroaching upon already occupied land. This throws up problems of overcrowding and congestion. High vehicle density on narrow roads causes traffic snarls and quite a few road traffic accidents. In India, roads are not only used for transport; parking,walking, cycling ( owing to lack of pavements, parking spaces and dedicated cycle lanes, for want for space), hawking, playing cricket are other activities on the road. They are also the home range of stray dogs, cows and pigs. Planning of cities also becomes difficult due to the multiple claims on the land already existing.

Fall of the old and rise of the new

India had flourishing urban centres since ancient and medieval times. Patna, the present capital of Bihar, was also the capital city of the Mauryans in the 2nd century B.C. Most of them had vibrant industries like textile manufacturing, precious metals, gems and jewellery, leather and so on. But, with the advent of the British and also post-Independence, many of these urban centres went into decline due to deindustrialisation and loss of royal patronage. Surat, a city of the late medieval times in, present day Gujarat , was a centre of textile industry and ship-building. After colonization by the British, it went into decline due to the growing importance of Mumbai under the British. On one hand, old cities stagnated in growth; on the other, the new, rapidly urbanising centres like Mumbai grew hapazhardly. The Dharavi slum had its beginnings in the 1850s, when the population density of Mumbai was 10 times that of London. Some highly polluting industries like tanneries and pottery were moved out the rapidly growing centre into Dharavi; the labour, mostly low-caste Hindus and Indian Muslims followed suit. Rural migrants also poured in, looking for employment. There was no corresponding investment in basic infrastructure like sanitaion, roads, lighting and the like.

The largest slum in Asia, Dharavi

Today, Dharavi has a vibrant informal economy and a population density of 270,000 per ( average population density of India is around 460 per Cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed here, making it a ticking time bomb. It may turn out to be one of the many epidemics that the inhabitants have endured since centuries.

Diseases and pests

Bangalore, also called the Silicon Valley of India, is a preferred destination for the IT industry due to its pleasant weather, skilled labour and favourable government policy. Every monsoon, an outbreak of dengue occurs without fail, with a few deaths occuring. Dengue is a vector-borne viral disease, spread by the bite of infected Aedes mosquito, which breeds in stagnant water in tanks, drains, potholes, gardens and so on. Mosquitoes thrive in the warm, humid conditions of tropical and subtropical regions. As do most other vectors like rats, lizards, flies and cockroaches. Urbanisation exacerbates the disease-producing capacity of these pests by providing them breeding grounds like open garbage dumps and drains, as well as, tighly packed human habitations.

The other class of diseases that most often arise from tropical and subtropical regions are zoonotics, or diseases which jump from animals to humans ( think Ebola, SARS, MERS, Nipah, Zika). All the coronavirus outbreaks, including the current pandemic, have spread frm bats, which harbour hundreds of infectious pathogens. High pathogen biodiversity exists along with high plant and animal biodiversity in these regions. With destruction of forest habitats due to development, the physical gap between wild animals and humans narrows, leading to outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. While the brunt of it is borne by the poor nations in this region, sometimes pandemics occur, causing effects globally.

The loss of rich Biodiversity
Amazon forest fires, 2019

The Amazon forests in equatorial South America are called the ‘lungs of the Earth’. In August 2019, the lungs were on fire; an 80 percent increase in forest fires was recorded from 2018. This was allegedly due to lifting of restrictions on deforestation and other economic activity in this precious forest ecosystem, leading to mad-made fires to easen the process exploitation of the forest. The Western Ghats, spread over the more industrialised southern states of India, are one of the ‘hottest hot spots of biodiversity’, indicating its richness as well as degradation of over 70 percent of its species diversity. The more we destroy the forest ecosystems in the name of development, higher numbers of species of plants, animals and insects go extinct. With extinction of each species, we inch closer to our own extinction. Intensive agriculture and plantation farming which relies on monoculture, also has the same effect.

For centuries, tribal communities of tropical regions have peacefully coexisted with Mother Nature and her bounty. They have lived sustainably over centuries, even before the term ‘sustainable development’ was coined. They have lived off her without exploiting her, fully aware that she is the goose who lays the golden eggs; but, in the process of development, we may end up killing the goose.

But, the present model of environment conservation that India follows is also based on Western conceptions. In the temperate regions, the ‘wilderness’ is completely divorced from humans. No livelihoods are dependent on it, nor does it have any interaction with humans. To conserve it, all that needs to be done, is to seal it off as a ‘protected area’. But, in tropical countries, people have always lived in close relationship with the forests. For eg, in olden times, honey brought from the forests by tribals was a delicacy for the kings and masses alike. Sealing off areas as National parks and Tiger reserves is not the whole solution. Forest conservation cannot happen without the active involement of local communities and indigenous peoples, as well as developing sustainably.

Special mention

Urban heat islands, caused due to concrete strcutures and felling of trees in urban areas, is exacerbating heat waves across cities. Erection of mobile towers is killing birds, which are abundantly found in tropical regions. The numerous water bodies like inland lakes and ponds are being encroached to make way for expansion of cities; this is causing urban flooding in the rainy season. Heavy rains, typical of tropical regions, are damaging roads and pavements. Tropical cyclones, much more destructive than temperate cyclones, are ravaging coastal cities, with climate change adding to its power. Our architecture and heritage sites are being taken down for building high rise structures. South Asia is the most polluted region in the world, literally poisoning its children.

We need a paradigm shift in the discourse of urbanisation and development, to build a model that is suited for our conditions. Or India may never be able to provide a good quality of life for her citizens.

Author: Mahima Prasad

Doctor, dog enthusiast, UPSC aspirant

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